Politics: Between the extremes
By Nick Clegg
Bodley Head, 2016, 288 pages
Political memoirs, reflections and biographies tend to come in lumps. Key events often leave would-be writers time to write or something specific to write about. So this autumn has seen works by Ed Balls, Kenneth Clarke and Nick Clegg as well as a slew of material about the Brexit referendum.
As a political junkie, I would read all these books as a matter of course. But it is increasingly clear that works such as Nick Clegg’s Politics have lessons and insights for those of us working in, studying or teaching Public Relations.
I was fully prepared to dislike the Nick Clegg book. My assumption was that he would have given us a “not my fault – life is unfair” type of approach. Far from it. Politics shines a light on what Clegg got wrong, and knows he got wrong, as well as what could, and should, have been done differently.
The insights for communicators, and for those concerned about the projection of image, are clear.
Britain on the whole does not do Coalitions at national level. And it had been some time since the last one. That means that the civil service, and in particular those charged with presentation, was simply not ready for the needs of two different parties.
Clegg tells us he was at first reluctant to use the backdrops of power. He didn’t even have a separate door to his office building! Slowly however he realised that politicians need to signal power and responsibility. Entrances are important. Surroundings and backdrops matter.
Eventually his staff began to find settings that would communicate messages of authority. I suspect this is a lesson that will be remembered in the event of another Coalition.
Yet while the Lib Dems had thought through policy and process in some depth prior to 2010, no one had really considered presentation properly.
Clegg acknowledges the difficulties of both promoting a stable Coalition and keeping the Lib Dem brand distinct. He is frustrated that the Conservatives managed to annexe some popular Lib Dem policies while tying him and his colleagues to unpopular Conservative ones.
Yet his tone is good humoured and reflective rather than bitter and angry. The question of whether a future Government should be more deliberately open about discussions and exchanges between those in power is a good one.
Do we want our Government to look and seem decisive and strong? Or would we like to hear about some of the negotiations and arguments to better understand the decision? Political wisdom is that we project a strong and decisive Prime Minister and that we avoid the appearance of U turns.
I wonder if the social media age will encourage us to be more mature about understanding policy negotiation. As someone with Dutch and Spanish relatives and a background in the European Parliament, Clegg understands the nature of Coalition. His mistake may have been to over-estimate the UK media’s understanding of reality.
This book is not a straightforward chronological account. It mixes behind-the-scenes details with reflection and recommendation. Students of Public Relations will find much to ponder in the thoughts about what people saw of the Coalition and what that made them think or feel.
I would recommend this book be read alongside David Laws’ detailed account of 2010 to 2015 – Coalition (published by Biteback). But even if you don’t have time to cross reference, Politics is a good read that will repay the time you spend.
Paula Keaveney is senior lecturer in Public Relations and Politics at Edge Hill University. She is an active member of the Liberal Democrats and was one of the kamikaze candidates in 2015.